Pronunciation Conundrum Solved

"How is the correct way to pronounce the way of your city?" W. A. Gunn, Lexington, KY, July 29, 1913.

Returning to Louisville to rejoin the Filson staff, I found it both fitting and appealing that my initial cataloguing work was on a collection of Filson Club letters – what better way to re-immerse myself into the history of Louisville and Filsoniana?  Little did I know that within these letters I would discover the Filson’s definitive answer to that age-old controversy…How is “Louisville” pronounced? I first came across this question while growing up in Northern Kentucky [Lou-ah-vole versus Lou-eee-vill – embarrassingly, I was a member of the Lou-eee-vill crew until actually moving here and undergoing re-education by the locals].  In the intervening years, I have seen and heard quite a variety of suggestions on the pronunciation of this fair city, as well as a variety of spellings after strangers heard the city’s name. [Circa 2003, I received a new computer at work addressed to the city of “Luvole.” As the package made it to the Filson, clearly our friends at UPS are familiar with this issue].  The city’s former Visitor’s Bureau logo, featuring five of the pronunciations, is probably the most familiar documentation to many locals and friends of Louisville regarding the various ways to say “Louisville.”

Alfred Pirtle, July 30 1913. "The Filson Club prefer..."

But how is one to know the authoritative answer to this pronunciation conundrum?  I stumbled upon the answer when arranging early incoming and outgoing Filson Club correspondence.

In 1913, a Lexingtonian by the name of W. A. Gunn was faced with this same question.  He sent an inquiry to Alfred Pirtle, corresponding secretary of The Filson Club, on July 29, 1913, explaining that “most people called it Louisville, English style, but many gave it the French accent with the ‘s’ silent.” Gunn asked The Filson Club to “discuss this matter and decide which is proper.”

What a heavy burden for members of The Filson Club to carry!  I turned to some quick sources to try to determine my own answer. Curator of Special Collections Jim Holmberg revealed to me that William Clark (a man who spelled phonetically if ever there was one) often spelled Louisville “Lewisville,” suggesting that in the early nineteenth century, some locals were pronouncing the “s.” I personally consulted another resource unavailable to the early Filson members, Wikipedia. The Louisville, Kentucky, entry actually includes a section on pronunciation!  Unfortunately, I am not sure how to type the fancy characters used in that entry, nor can I promote Wikipedia as the definitive answer – instead, I will move on to The Filson’s answer.

Pirtle’s response is dated the next day.  [One wonders if the members of The Filson Club discussed the matter the evening of July 29 and into the early morning hours of July 30….]  Pirtle’s letter to Gunn explained that two pronunciations were in vogue.  The first was the anglicized version of the French (fitting, as in 1780 the city was named after King Louis XVI of France), “Looevill.” The second was “Lewis-vill.” In one line, Pirtle gives the answer: “The Filson Club prefer “Looevill.”

Ah, resolution!!

Jennie Cole

Jennie Cole is the Manager of Collection Access at The Filson. She has a MLIS with a specialization in Archives from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in History from the University of Louisville. Jennie's research interests in the Filson's collections include women's history, Camp Zachary Taylor, and Speed family of Louisville.

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